Report

Trump’s Plan to Leave a Major Arms Treaty With Russia Might Actually Be About China

Leaving the agreement clears the way for the U.S. to boost its conventional forces in the Pacific.

This aerial photo taken on Jan. 2, 2017, shows a Chinese navy formation, including the aircraft carrier Liaoning (C), during military drills in the South China Sea. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)
This aerial photo taken on Jan. 2, 2017, shows a Chinese navy formation, including the aircraft carrier Liaoning (C), during military drills in the South China Sea. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

President Donald Trump’s proposal to pull out of a major U.S. arms control agreement with Russia is not just about Moscow, or nuclear weapons. The move also clears a path to boost America’s conventional forces in China’s backyard, according to arms control experts as well as current and former administration officials.

The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, signed in 1987 by U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, prohibits the use of nuclear and conventional missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 km (300 to 3,400 miles). But since China has never been a signatory, it has been able to build up a vast arsenal of conventional weapons that now threaten freedom of navigation in the region, such as the DF-21 “carrier killer,” experts say.

Beijing already has conventional ballistic and cruise missiles that can strike major U.S. facilities in the region, such as Kadena Air Base in Japan. It is also developing stealth combat aircraft. As a result, U.S. and allied assets in the Pacific are being pushed further and further offshore, and Beijing is able to continue its buildup in the South China Sea unabated.

The proposal to pull out of the INF Treaty, which is still not a certainty, would allow the United States to compete with China in building conventional weapons currently banned under the agreement, the officials and experts said. These weapons—likely mobile, ground-launched, medium-range ballistic missiles operated by the Army—could be stationed on islands in the Pacific Ocean to help counter Chinese aggression, according to one current administration official.

“The military balance in the Pacific is going in the wrong direction,” said Elbridge Colby, the director of the defense program at the Center for New American Security, who served in the U.S. Defense Department as the deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy and force development until earlier this year. “The scale of the Chinese military buildup is so significant and so advanced that we need to use every potential arrow in our quiver.”

While the United States currently relies on its Navy ships and Air Force bombers for deterrence in the region, Army artillery would likely be a key component of this buildup. Deploying intermediate-range ground-launched systems to the region would add a more versatile, survivable force that could help offset the Chinese military buildup, Colby stressed.

“It gives us a tremendous amount of additional options,” the current administration official said.

National Security Advisor John Bolton may be driving this line of thinking. In a 2011 Wall Street Journal op-ed, Bolton advocated abandoning the INF Treaty and pointed to China as a justification. He warned that China’s rapidly growing missile arsenal imperils allied and U.S. forces in the Pacific.

“To reduce the threat from INF-range missiles, we must either expand the INF Treaty’s membership or abrogate it entirely so that we can rebuild our own deterrent capabilities,” Bolton wrote at the time.

Prior to Bolton’s arrival in the White House this spring, Pentagon officials had dismissed the idea that withdrawal from the INF Treaty could be useful in the strategic competition with China, according to the Arms Control Association. At a congressional hearing in July 2017, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Paul Selva said the move was unnecessary because the United States can already hold those targets at risk with treaty-compliant air- and sea-based assets, according to the group.

But more recently, retired Adm. Harry Harris, then the commander of U.S. Pacific Command, warned that the INF Treaty had eroded America’s edge in the Pacific.

“We are at a disadvantage with regard to China today in the sense that China has ground-based ballistic missiles that threaten our basing in the western Pacific and our ships,” Harris, who is now the ambassador to South Korea, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in March. “We have no ground-based capability that can threaten China because of, among other things, our rigid adherence, and rightfully so, to the treaty that we signed on to, the INF Treaty.”

Tom Karako, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, agreed that scrapping the INF Treaty would allow the U.S. to deploy critical land-based platforms in the Pacific.

“I think that the most immediate, near-term implication is likely for the Army’s long-range precision fires program,” Karako said. “The absence of an INF may mean it might just be a little bit easier to come up with delivery systems that are not quite so sophisticated that can serve our purposes, but we are not limited by the shackles of the treaty.”

This approach is not without precedent. Andrew Krepinevich Jr., then the president of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, in 2015 pushed an “Archipelagic Defense” strategy of establishing a series of linked defenses along the so-called first island chain, which encompasses parts of Japan, the Philippines, and Taiwan. Krepinevich argued that the U.S. Army and allies such as Japan should deploy longer-range systems capable of both intercepting Chinese cruise missiles and destroying Chinese aircraft along this chain.

Krepinevich floated the idea of resurrecting the Army’s artillery force for coastal defense, a mission it abandoned after World War II.

Colby emphasized the urgency of maintaining America’s edge in the Pacific.

“I think it’s really important to emphasize that the U.S. has spent almost five years trying every which way to get the Russians into compliance, and we don’t have endless time, particularly in the Pacific,” he said.

Correction, Oct. 23, 2018: Harry Harris is the U.S. ambassador to South Korea. A previous version of this story mistakenly said he was the ambassador to Australia. 

Lara Seligman is Foreign Policy's Pentagon correspondent. @laraseligman

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